Written by Saadat Hassan Bilal.

China is financing over $62 billion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has been deemed the “flagship” initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI envisages enhancing connectivity between China, Europe, and the Middle East through a network of trade and transport corridors. While CPEC intends to bolster Pakistan’s economy by modernizing its infrastructure, China is concerned about the security risks terrorism poses to its investments. This is why it has added a security dimension to the plan, including a full system of real-time monitoring and 24-hour surveillance in major cities, and the construction of explosive detectors and scanners for “major-roads, case-prone areas and crowded places.”

Acts of terrorism committed against Chinese workers and engineers in Pakistan are  aimed at sabotaging fast-growing Pakistan-China cooperation

China is concerned for the safety of its nationals in Pakistan. Despite a Special Security Division of 9,000 Pakistan Army soldiers and 6,000 paramilitary forces dedicated to the security of individuals working on CPEC, the kidnapping and killing of a Chinese couple in Quetta by Islamic State affiliates in June highlights the limitations of the state’s ability to protect Chinese nationals. The influx of Chinese nationals in Pakistan since the launch of CPEC in 2015 shows no signs of slowing down however. The number of Chinese residents in Pakistan has now tripled to around 30,000, while over 71,000 Chinese tourists visited on short-term visas in 2016.

During the Musharraf era,  action was taken against separatist groups and leaders of the militant East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Several joint anti-terror exercises were held by Pakistani and Chinese security forces between 2004- 2011 with the most recent one being held in Xinjiang this year. Indeed military cooperation between Beijing and Islambad is growing. In December 2007, Pakistan and China signed an extradition treaty which came into force in January 2008. Chinese forces captured as many as 10 ETIM militants with the help of Pakistani intelligence in July 2011. In December 2011, Pakistan and China signed three Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) to bolster further military cooperation, communication and intelligence-sharing to eliminate terrorism, especially those who are posing threats to Chinese interests in Pakistan.

Friendship with China constitutes the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Though Islamabad has a close alliance with the US as a result of the War on Terror, it cannot afford to compromise its all-weather friendship with China.  Due to changing global and regional scenarios, China and Pakistan have decided to intensify cooperation in combating terrorism, extremism, and other trans-national crimes. An agreement took place in March 2001, at the time of the meeting between Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat and the Chinese delegation, headed by Yang Huanning-Vice Minister for Public Security in China. Both decided to adopt a joint strategy to combat terrorism. The two sides have also strengthened bilateral cooperation to check narcotic trafficking, illegal border trade and money laundering, and other trans-border crimes.  China has also joined hands with the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and India to combat terrorism. It has reinforced anti-terrorism measures in the fields of finance, law, civil aviation security and entry and exit administration.

It is believed that continued strategic dialogue between China and Pakistan on security and defence issues would greatly contribute to maintaining peace in the region. For this purpose, a joint working group of the two countries meets from time to time to review anti-terrorism measures. The two sides also strengthened bilateral cooperation to check narcotics trafficking, illegal border trade and money-laundering and other trans-border crimes. Both countries agreed to continue to support each other to strengthen peace, security and development at regional and international levels.

The forces of terrorism, extremism and separatism represent not only internal threats to  the peace, security and prosperity of the two countries; they also threaten to undermine their long established close friendship and strategic cooperation. In view of Pakistan and China embarking on a path towards greater cooperation in economic, trade and investment fields that include energy, agriculture, industry, science and technology, infrastructure development, water management, mineral development and construction, this issue becomes particularly pertinent. Acts of terrorism committed against Chinese workers and engineers in Pakistan are in fact aimed at sabotaging fast-growing Pakistan-China cooperation. These attacks began in 2004, a year before Pakistan and China signed, during Premier Wen Jiabao‟s visit to Pakistan in April 2005, a number of agreements and MoUs for cooperation and joint ventures in a large number of areas.  Counter-terrorism  cooperation between Pakistan and China at both bilateral and multilateral levels has been in existence for a decade. The two countries have put in place bilateral mechanisms at ministerial levels as well as intelligence sharing to  make counterterrorism measures more effective. Pakistan and China have also conducted three joint anti-terror military exercises in the last seven years.

From 2004 to 2010, there were four separate terrorist attacks on Chinese workers engaged in development projects in different parts of Pakistan. In these attacks 12 Chinese lost their lives. The Chinese authorities also charged that the terrorists responsible for a series of bomb blasts and attacks on the civilians in Kashgar city of the  Xinjiang region of China had received training for making explosives in the tribal areas better known as FATA. This underlines the need for the two countries to further intensify their cooperation in counter-terrorism.

Up till now China has provided Pakistan more than 500 million US dollars to strengthen its capacity to fight terrorism. Chinese participation in building dams, roads and other infrastructure in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan is also part of the Chinese strategy to help Pakistan fight militancy in these areas. Pakistan has received explosives scanners from China, which can detect vehicles carrying explosive materials. These scanners have been installed at the entry points of all the big cities of Pakistan, including Islamabad.

China has concerns about global terrorist networks trying to target Chinese nationals abroad or supporting extremist terrorists, like the ETIM, at home. Because of the war in Afghanistan, several terrorist outfits have established their hideouts in Pakistan’s border areas, which has resulted in increased terrorist activity in Pakistan as well as its spillover from Pakistan to some other countries.

There is no denying the fact that terrorism has surfaced as one of the major irritants in Pak-China relations over the past couple of decades. Keeping in view the importance Pakistan attaches to its relations with China, protection of Chinese nationals on Pakistani soil and elimination of remnants of ETIM or their supporters in any part of Pakistan should be a top priority for Pakistan.

Saadat Hassan Bilal is a PhD Scholar at the School of Politics & International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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